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Armed with HoloLens, Microsoft partners up for virtual reality

The software titan won't be taking sides in the looming VR wars as it partners with major players Oculus and Valve while pushing its own HoloLens augmented reality system.

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Microsoft's HoloLens is one of the more intriguing aspects of the new Microsoft. CNET

Microsoft has its bets covered when it comes to virtual reality.

The Redmond, Wash., software titan said on Monday that it's partnering to support Valve's virtual reality system. The announcement was made at the Xbox press conference at the E3 video game conference in Los Angeles.

The news comes just days after Microsoft partnered with Oculus to provide a bundle an Xbox controller with every Oculus Rift headset. Between Oculus, Valve and its own HoloLens augmented reality headset, the company is backing all of the major players in virtual reality.

The move is part of Microsoft's push to be everywhere to everyone at a time when a potential war is brewing between different factions looking to propel virtual reality into the mainstream. On one side is Faceb0ok-owned Oculus, which announced last week that its Rift headset would be commercially released early next year. On the other side is Valve, which is partnering with Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC on its own headset, called the Vive. Vive is supposed to hit the market this holiday.

Microsoft also showed off its own HoloLens headset in a demonstration of a customized version of Minecraft built to handle augment reality. A virtual simulation of a Minecraft world emerged out of a real wooden table, allowing the person using the headset to manipulate the world and switch perspectives.

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Microsoft's willingness to back all parties underscores the opportunity that it sees in virtual reality. The technology, which can take you into different virtual worlds or, in the case of HoloLens, layer virtual items and graphics on top of the real world, is seen as one of the next big drivers of growth in technology.

Microsoft's HoloLens is an ambitious device designed to float 3D images made only of light in front of our eyes. The headset contains speakers for audio output and a large number of cameras and sensors for mapping the environment and tracking the user's body and head movements.

Microsoft has previously only trotted the HoloLens out twice -- once at the January unveiling during a Windows 10 event and again during its annual Build developers conference. Both times, access to the headset was restricted to very limited press demos in which journalists were asked to lock away smartphones and camera equipment.

The HoloLens will run a version of Windows 10 software, Microsoft says. That will allow developers to design so-called universal apps that can run on the HoloLens as well as the PC, the Xbox One game console, Surface tablets and Windows smartphones. The project is expected to be released within the Windows 10 timeframe, Microsoft executives have said repeatedly. Whether that means this year or within the entire lifespan of Windows 10, which could be many years, is unclear.

Aside from HoloLens, Microsoft seemed to be on the sidelines of the virtual-reality race. That changed last Thursday, when it announced a surprise partnership with Facebook-owned Oculus VR that will bundle Xbox One controllers with the Oculus Rift when the headset ships next spring.

The partnership with Microsoft will also bring the entire catalog of Xbox One games, including the upcoming sci-fi shooter Halo 5: Guardians, to the Rift through streaming technology built into Windows 10 , Microsoft's next upgrade for its software to power computers, due out July 29.

Xbox games will not be made for the Rift, however. They will instead play on a virtual screen, simulating a theater. The headset will only work with Windows at launch, and both companies said they have no immediate plans to plug the Rift directly into an Xbox video game console.

As for Valve, the company and its Vive headset isn't expected to have a presence at E3. But the company and partner HTC, which has been expanding into different product categories beyond the traditional smartphone, is racing to get its product out before Oculus.